Los Angeles — He was a Democrat turned Republican with a sunny Southern California disposition, Hollywood connections, and a background in broadcasting, a conservative who had taken the occasional liberal social position, running in a race in which few people thought he had much of a chance. Kevin James gets Ronald Reagan.
“The difference is, I’m not a movie star,” he says. “I just have a movie star’s name.” He may share a name with the “King of Queens,” but this Kevin James, an entertainment lawyer and former conservative talk-radio host, is running for mayor of Los Angeles. The last Republican to hold the office was billionaire venture capitalist Richard Riordan, who departed in 2001 and was the first Republican to win the position in 30 years. With California cities going bankrupt left and right, Los Angeles in financial duress, Governor Jerry Brown jacking up taxes and spending billions on fanciful railroads, economic stagnation, and — not least — an open seat attracting a weak and Hispanic-less Democratic field, James has a once-in-a-generation shot at carrying the conservative banner into Democratic-occupied Los Angeles.
Given the city’s finances and the state of the California economy, Los Angeles is hardly the most attractive place to launch a political life, and the city’s demographics hardly favor a Republican’s doing so. And mayor of the country’s second-largest city isn’t exactly a traditional entry-level job in politics. But James says he is not looking for a traditional political career: He just wants to save the city he loves. “I could have run for city council, and that would have been easier. But I’d just be one voice. As one voice, I can call them out, but I’m still just one council member, and the problems this city faces are going to take more than that. One council member can’t do it, but a mayor can.”
James offers to show me why he wants to run for mayor of Los Angeles, and our journey begins at his office in the Century Plaza Towers. He mentions that for some time after 9/11, he was unable to work out of his office: The towers were designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki and were thought to be a possible target. Talk of 9/11 naturally brought to mind Rudy Giuliani, and I asked him whether it would be fair to call him a “Giuliani Republican.” “I admired his law-and-order stance, and we’re both pro-business, and we’re both former federal prosecutors, though he was a U.S. attorney and I was an assistant U.S. attorney.”
But while James speaks well of Giuliani, it is Reagan who seems to hold a place in his heart. “I love Ronald Reagan. He was a huge part of my life. I cast my first presidential ballot for him in 1984. I came to California in 1987, and the law firm I was interviewing with, Gibson Dunn, put me up at the Century Plaza, which was then known as the ‘West Coast White House.’ It was an exciting time — and California was such a power then.” James did in fact join Gibson Dunn, where his colleagues included William French Smith, Reagan’s attorney general.
“Los Angeles had so much going on then: the entertainment industry, the diversity and energy of the city,” he says. “But I have watched the city decline, watched the young people leave to find opportunity elsewhere.” We go down to the garage beneath his office building (largest underground parking facility in the world, incidentally) and get in his car to take a tour of what’s ailing the city. (In case you’re wondering, this Hollywood lawyer and media figure in status-obsessed Los Angeles drives a Ford Fusion. He apparently takes his message of fiscal discipline personally.)